Jessica - McLean, Virginia
Entered on November 9, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: citizenship


I am number 585. In my mind, this three-digit numeral evokes vivid memories of a gray concrete sidewalk on a rainy afternoon, of rubber floors and artificial yellow lighting flickering in the desolate gymnasium. As I stepped into the building on that momentous day, I knew I was born to do this. It was my destiny; it was in the cards. I had been born eighteen years ago on November 4 for this very reason. I pulled out my voter registration card with shaking hands.

Those around me were smiling pleasantly, as if they didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the event they were privileged enough to witness. Didn’t they feel the electricity in the air? Didn’t they feel the crackling, tingling, edge-of-your-seat energy that surrounded me like an invisible aura? Only hours ago I had been a naïve 17-year-old, and now – on my eighteenth birthday – I was about to cast my very first ballot as an adult citizen. The gray old man took my permit with his hands shaking too, though probably more from old age than excitement. He smiled perfunctorily, as he would at any young voter.

“This your first time?”

He could have been talking about anything – getting a flu shot, or pumping gas, or taking the SAT. Clearly, he didn’t understand the significance of this day. Somehow, the gods of civics and maternity had struck a deal at the hour of my conception. I pictured amorphous divine figures perusing a calendar as they planned the day of my birth to coincide with the election exactly 18 years in the future, making me just old enough to vote.

The man checked my ID against a bulbous book of names. I imagined myself not as a person but as one line in the enormous volume of voters; today, I was not an individual but part of an entire nation of civic-minded citizens deciding the fate of the world’s paragon of democracy. Despite the dismal setting of the old high school gymnasium, I felt empowered.

The man handed me my orange voting permit and motioned for me to step through to the booths behind him.

“You’re voter number 585.”

585. I was the 585th step toward the nation’s new commander-in-chief; I was about to lay the 585th brick on the wall of America’s executive future. The adrenaline built in my veins with each step. Judging by the exhilaration present in my demeanor, one might have thought I was being elected president, not simply voting for one. As I stepped into the booth, my fingers went numb. The screen’s bright primary colors blinded me momentarily. This was it. I followed the on-screen instructions carefully. With each tap of the screen, I expected fireworks to erupt from the machine in front of me.

Thirty seconds later, it was over. I had touched the screen exactly eight times, and it had taken scarcely as much time as it would to send a 100-character text message.

“That’s it?” I said aloud.

“That’s it,” the man replied. “It’s no big deal.”

But that wasn’t it, not by a long shot. I left the polling place in a daze, deep in thought. Maybe I was not legally a minor anymore, but apparently no one had bothered to tell that to my ever-inventive imagination. Voting wasn’t quite as glamorous as my juvenile mind had made it out to be. Or maybe it was, in a mature adult way. Children are always looking for instant gratification; they want every experience to be as enjoyable from the very first moment as they had anticipated it would be. But I was no longer a child, and I had grown up within the half-minute I spent at the voting booth. It wasn’t about the flashy expectations or hype; what really mattered was the practical effect of the action itself.

Too many young people care more about booze than ballots; they would rather spend their eighteenth birthday at a crowded party rather than alone in a voting booth. For some, the problem is apathy; for others, it is the belief that they are ineffectual, that society is a world created and run by adults. I take pride in the fact that I will never be one of them.

My desire to be a significant member of society is evident in everything I do. It is why I imagine myself at the editorial desk of the Washington Post when designing the front page of my high school newspaper. It is why I participate in MUN – which simulates a real organization in which today’s leaders literally change the course of international history – and why I do community service, which (even on a small scale) incites significant change in people’s lives. And it is why I stood in line for the first time to vote on that November day.

I am number 585 this year, and who knows what number I will be next election. But I do know that I will show up year after year, pressing the buttons and casting my ballot. And one day, I may replace the man checking off names in the gloomy lighting of a gym-turned-polling location. I will make sure to smile broadly at all the young voters, whom I will see as number 432 or 586, as honorable civil servants sacrificing an afternoon to take charge of their future. I will smile at them as if they are extraordinary because they are – because even if they don’t know it yet, and even if there are no fireworks or balloons, voting is a big deal.